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Is Keeping a Saltwater Reef Aquarium Difficult?

Reef Aquarium in Leawood, Kansas

Saltwater reef aquariums can be a more challenging experience than the typical freshwater tropical aquarium. However, they don’t have to be so difficult that they are impossible to enjoy, even for beginners. If the excitement and wonder of reef keeping sounds like a challenge you want to undertake, here is some insight into what difficulties lie ahead and how to overcome them. 

The difficulty of keeping a saltwater reef aquarium is relative to three major factors:

  1. Your level of knowledge

  2. The types and number of organisms you plan to keep

  3. The size of the aquarium

Fortunately, you can adjust the second and third factors to accommodate for factor one. As your knowledge increases, so can the complexity of your reef aquarium. 

If you’re asking how difficult a saltwater reef aquarium is too keep, you're probably thinking about starting your first one. Let’s look at the components of saltwater reef aquariums that give them the reputation of being more difficult. 

  • Initial Cost

  • Chemical Relationships

  • Biodiversity

  • Maintenance Costs

The modern saltwater reef aquarium can require more equipment, and therefore cost, than any other type of aquarium. I say “modern” and “can” because many successful reef aquariums are kept with minimal to no equipment. This however is not generally normal. Most reefers favor adding equipment to make their system easier to maintain and control. 

The chemical reactions that occur within a saltwater environment are complicated. There are many facets of saltwater reefing chemistry. Without proper respect or understanding of how these relationships can affect your system, you will find reef keeping to be more difficult than it needs to be. You do not need to be a chemist, however, to keep a saltwater reef. You just need to be an eager learner with a healthy curiosity. 

The biodiversity within the ocean is grander than any other ecosystem. Saltwater reef tanks have more biodiversity than most other types of aquariums. Understanding what organisms, micro and macro, live in your aquarium and how they will affect the ecosystem is crucial to keeping a successful saltwater reef aquarium. 

The continued maintenance of a saltwater reef aquarium is generally more expensive than other types of aquariums. Regular water changes involve a salt mix, and depending on the complexity of your reef, a number of other products, additives, and media may need to be replaced or dosed on a regular basis. 

Initial Cost of a Saltwater Reef Aquarium

Most modern saltwater reef aquariums come with a higher initial cost than freshwater, fish-only saltwater, or brackish aquariums. This is mainly due to the extra equipment required to properly maintain a reef aquarium. 

High quality and intensity lights, a protein skimmer, and customizable filtration go a long way to ensure success with a reef aquarium. It is possible to build and maintain a saltwater reef aquarium without much equipment at all. However, a more advanced understanding of the chemistry and biology of the aquarium’s environment is usually required as well. 

Berlin style saltwater aquariums, for example, rely heavily on the natural bacterial populations to maintain a balanced aquarium. 

Generally, the equipment marketed to reef hobbyists is meant to increase the chance of success with our aquariums, and to make our lives easier. If the equipment you're buying doesn’t accomplish both of these things you should consider whether or not you actually need it. 

There is not a single piece of equipment I would recommend “skimping” on, or going with the cheapest option. If you want to lower the initial cost, consider decreasing the size of the aquarium, or limit yourself to animals that have less expensive requirements. 

For example, if a 90 gallon mixed coral reef turns out to be too much, starting with a 60 gallon soft coral tank and upgrading as you learn more is an excellent way to begin. 

Chemical Relationships in a Saltwater Reef Aquarium

The chemical reactions that occur within a saltwater reef aquarium are complex, and affect nearly every aspect of your tank and the life within it. This may sound daunting, but you don’t need to be a chemist to own a saltwater reef aquarium. 

While the chemical relationships in saltwater are more complex and numerous than freshwater, the pre-made salt mix you buy does most of the work for you, at least at the beginning. 

Performing regular water changes, testing for, and understanding the basic parameters like pH, nitrate, phosphate, and alkalinity is the most chemistry you will do at first. 

If you are enjoying the hobby, you will learn its chemistry quickly. 

Perhaps the largest hurdle to owning a successful saltwater reef aquarium is the learning curve. There is an enormous amount of knowledge involved with this hobby. Thankfully you don’t need to know everything, or really that much at all, at least to begin. 

What you do need is a mentor. The most successful beginner reef hobbyists are those who found another successful hobbyist and mimicked what they did. They don’t have to be local or in person, maybe it's someone online or with a YouTube channel. 

Choose one person who has a successful tank, and just do what they did. An easy mistake you can make is cherry picking techniques, methods, and practices from multiple hobbyists. All aquariums are different. While many of them are successful, they did not take the same path to get there, and using methods from multiple setups can have disastrous effects. . 

Biodiversity of a Saltwater Reef Aquarium

Coral reefs have the highest biodiversity of any ecosystem on planet earth. When we try to replicate this environment in our home aquariums, we invite hundreds and eventually thousands of species to inhabit and interact with each other inside our artificial ecosystem. 

These relationships and interactions become complicated quickly. The high biodiversity itself is not what makes saltwater reef keeping difficult. Not having the patience to allow these relationships and interactions to play out in their own time is what causes frustration in the modern reefer. 

For example, when you start a new reef aquarium, there is a series of microbial and algal succession that must occur. Initial organisms like bacteria begin to grow in the tank. They compete with other organisms like algae, and begin to overtake the aquarium at various speeds. The first week you may have brown algae (diatoms) covering your rocks. Eventually, the diatoms may be replaced by another type of algae a few weeks later, then another type, and another after that. The succession of algae and bacteria as the tank ages is completely natural. 

Eventually, the aquarium will balance, and your microbiome will establish. This leads to clean looking rock, sand, and glass, with only a minimal amount of algae growing, which your macro grazers like snails, urchins, and grazing fish like tangs and combtooth blennies, can take care of. 

To make this natural process happen quickly, you can add living, sustainable, probiotic bacteria blends to your aquarium. This will jumpstart and speed up the succession process by growing your microbiome faster. A healthy microbiome means less algae and pathogenic bacteria. 

Maintenance Costs of a Saltwater Reef Aquarium

Saltwater reef aquariums are not cheap when done correctly. Maintenance costs scale with the amount of livestock in the tank. The more fish and coral you have the more supplements, food, and media you will need. Maintenance costs of a reef aquarium can come from the following: 

  • salt mix

  • dosing supplements

  • frozen food

  • coral and specialty food

  • chemical media

  • mechanical media

  • testing

  • new or upgraded equipment 

When reef aquariums are full of fish and coral, they utilize resources in the tank quickly; sometimes faster than a water change can replenish them. In these cases, extra dosing of supplements in between water changes is necessary. One of the most expensive costs of maintaining a reef aquarium is the addition of the various supplements that must be replenished as they are consumed. 

Growing fish and coral also need a quality and varied diet. Fish and coral feeding regimens can be as simple or complex as you want to make them, but scale in cost quickly. 

Chemical and mechanical media are utilized depending on your bioload. A well balanced microbiome will prevent the use of expensive chemical media. There won’t be excessive nutrients to adsorb if your microbiome is established. 

Testing frequently is important with reef aquariums. Most home tests are fairly inexpensive. However, it is good practice to send your water to a lab for an ICP-OES test every few months. These are more expensive than home tests, but are not used as frequently. 

As your aquarium grows and you add more livestock, you will find yourself upgrading your equipment. Automated testers, larger protein skimmers, better lights, and media reactors are a few examples of possible upgrades. Depending on your initial budget, most of this equipment can be purchased initially and adjusted to your bioload as it grows. However, upgrading later to spread out the initial cost is also an option. 


In my experience, the best way to make reef keeping easier is to have patience. Nothing in the saltwater aquarium environment should happen quickly, good or bad. Tank crashes and expensive solutions are usually a result of a lack of patience and trying to force or rush a solution to a problem. When in doubt, be deliberate, take your time, and heed the advice of a trusted mentor.

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